At Guantanamo Bay, a pre-trial hearing for five detainees involved in the 9/11 attacks has revealed more details about the CIA’s torture programme. The military court heard from contractors involved in the programme.
The defence team has asked to question fifty-two members of the torture teams, but the CIA has refused them permission to question any except three and that was because their names were already public. One member of the defence team, James Connell, was warned by the military judges about questioning James Mitchell about things he knew but had not personally witnessed. “But he’s the only witness we’ve got!” protested Connell, “The government has blocked access to all the other CIA witnesses!”
The military court is desperate to convict the men involved in the attacks – and rightly so many would say – but the proceedings are turning into a farce. Last week, the court re-classified many details that have been declassified and are already in the public domain, simply to try and cripple the defence further. Seeing as the defence already has both hands tied behind its back by its inability to call witnesses, this seemed needless and simply made the military court seem partial and vindictive.
This approach to ignoring inconvenient parts of the law has long been the norm at Guantanamo. In 2006, British prisoner Feroz Abbasi asked a colonel sitting as judge at a Guantanamo tribunal if he could see the evidence against him as this would be normal under international law. The colonel said, according to the official transcript: “This is your final warning. I do not care about international law. I do not want to hear the words international law. We are not concerned about international law.”
James Mitchell, a psychologist who was involved in the programme and was successfully sued by the ACLU on behalf of three prisoners, revealed more grisly details:
1) Torture was not used to make detainees talk, but rather for revenge. Detainees were water boarded even if they were co-operating. The case of Abu Zubaydah was cited.
2) Torturers had to be trained. One CIA contractor, designated NX2 by the court, but believed to be former officer Charlie Wise who died in 2003, designed a training programme for trainee torturers. Wise had learned his trade as a torturer on behalf of the CIA-supported Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua in the 1980s. His training class was based at the CIA Afghanistan black site designated “Cobalt”. Live prisoners were used to demonstrate torture techniques. Trainees had to torture live prisoners in order to pass the course. Elsewhere, it has been revealed that many received injuries as a result and some died, one prisoner being kicked to death. It later transpired that he was a taxi driver who had been picked up in error. It is believed that Wise also ran the CIA black site in Poland designated “Blue” where further torture took place.
3) It had already been revealed, in declassified documents released in 2014, that the CIA copied their torture programme from the Gestapo. The Americans decided to call their torture programme “enhanced interrogation” following the example of the Nazis who called their torture programme “sharpened interrogation”. The techniques were outlined by Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller in a memorandum in 1942. These were to include starvation diet, sleep deprivation, dark cells and exhaustion. To suggest some humanitarian control, torture was only allowed in the presence of a doctor. This memorandum was used as the basis for the CIA programme, although the CIA then went much further using modern psychological research to make the techniques more agonising. They also did away with the need for a doctor.
4) Mitchell’s evidence also illustrates the increasing role played by private contractors. Intelligence services frequently employ them as a “screen” meaning that dubious or illegal activity can be denied by the intelligence service itself. Deniability is, of course, a key element of any secret service operation, but this system renders any rules essentially meaningless.
A well-known problem with secret services is that because they are secret they can go outside the rules of civilised behaviour. There is government oversight which is usually effective, but once secret services start serving the secret wishes of a group inside the government, as happened under the Bush administration, then any oversight is rendered meaningless. This was illustrated by the fact that the current CIA chief, Gina Haspel, was able to destroy all tapes and other evidence of torture before Congressional investigators could get to them. Haspel was suitably rewarded for her actions by the government. And there is not much hope for the future either. The CIA says that its torture programme has been discontinued as the threat is now over. But even if it has, it could be restored at a moment’s notice.
Of course, those people who were involved in the 9/11 attacks should be convicted and pay the full price for their despicable crimes. But the way the CIA has set about this, trampling on America’s own standards of decency and justice, often makes them look as cynical and self-serving as the men they are trying to convict. This undermines efforts elsewhere to defeat terrorism.